Debi Chaudhurani, or The Wife Who Came Home
This is the second in a trilogy of works by the famed Bengali novelist Bankimcandra Chatterji (1838-1894), and the second to be translated by Julius Lipner. The first, Anandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood was published by OUP in 2005. Bankim Chatterji was perhaps the foremost novelist and intellectual mediating western ideas to India in the latter half of the 19th century. Debi Chaudhurani is a didactic work that champions a particular interpretation of Hindu dharma and wifely duties reflective of the late 19th-century Calcutta context in which it was written. But the story is also compelling. Written in a conversational style, it features surprising plot twists and ideas that are, even today, revolutionary in their daring. Most notably, Bankim makes a woman the embodiment of Lord Krishna's salvific message, as originally enunciated in the Bhagavad Gita. The protagonist, Debi, is a complex figure who is a rejected wife, becomes a bandit queen, represents a goddess figure, and symbolizes the land of India. There is a creative tension between her strength as a leader and her correct role, from the perspective of the author, as a domestic wife.
Bankim also focuses on caste and what it means to be a genuine Brahmin, who is transformed by the author into a man who executes responsibilities instead of demanding privileges. Within the context of the teachings of the Gita, the author shares his vision of social activism to improve India. Lipner's idiomatic translation is enhanced by his detailed commentary on the original Bengali text and by a readable introduction that sets the novel and its ideas in context.